Rothman At-Large

Q & A With James Fallows on Trump and Pence

December 11, 2016

Think Donald Trump will give us many positive surprises in the near term?


Dream on. His EPA nominee hates the agency's mission. His expected nominee for secretary of state? The head of ExxonMobil.

What is this, reality or a cartoon? I caught up with James Fallows of the The Atlantic, once Jimmy Carter's chief speechwriter, for his own take last week on Trump and Vice President-Elect Mike Pence.


Q. Alas, nukes and conflicts of interest aren't the only reasons to fear a Trump presidency. Could Trump could turn into a true dictator while in office--or at least radically change the American political system for the worse?

A. The main challenge in predicting any aspect of Donald Trump as president is that everything about him is so unpredictable and unprecedented. What is most alarming, apart from his apparent complete ignorance of the substance of domestic and international policy and his temperamental instability, is his expressed contempt for the norms of democratic government. Freedom of the press, willingness to accept results that go against him, normal expectations of transparency--he disdained them all when merely a candidate, before he became the most powerful person in the world.


Q. How great are the odds that Trump could not only survive the full four years in the Oval Office but also be reelected, perhaps the result of voter manipulation and other strategies against the poor and minorities?

A. No one knows. Based on his temperamental excesses and apparent glaring conflicts of interest, it seems unlikely that he would finish even one term. But I am wary of any prediction involving Trump.


Q. What are the best ways--within the limits of law--to try to prevent Trump from reaching the White House?

A. David, I don't really know enough about this to say. I know this is what you're trying to build support for [the Pence Compromise], but I'm not expert on it.


Q. From climate change to diversity, Mike Pence's policies on most issues are loathsome to me. But at least he has advocated a federal shield law for professional journalists, and in certain other ways he has shown he would be far from a Trump-level threat to democracy in the United States.

A. To my mind, here is the distinction between Trump and Pence. Pence is a very conservative Republican-machine politician, 95% of whose policies I would probably oppose. But he is apparently sane and not evidently corrupt. That is what distinguishes him from Trump.


Q. What do you think of the idea of major news organizations teaming up to interview all 538 members of the Electoral College and publishing the raw information in one location, so historians decades from now will understand what was on the electors' minds? To me, this is the ultimate government accountability story. Ideally it could come out before December 19 when the electors vote.

A. Yes, that could be interesting! It would be a big manpower challenge for a news organization, and the odds of really changing things are remote. But it could be valuable.


More thoughts---David speaking: Needless to say, Pence disappointed me when he defended Donald Trump's claim of massive voting fraud, and I also wonder if Pence was behind the horrific EPA choice. But I'll stick with the compromise idea just the same. Trump will be so unfit as president, due to nuclear risks and conflicts of interest, that even Pence would be better.


The good news is that Allan Lichtman, an American University professor who forecast Trump's victory, is predicting his impeachment. Guess who Lichtman expects to replace Trump? Yes, Mike Pence, whom Republicans on the Hill view more favorably. That, of course, is why I suggested Pence as a compromise name in the Electoral College--not because I love his politics, which I don't, but because there's a chance that a fair number of Trump electors would be open to him as substitute for The Donald and thereby throw the election into the House. Better to cut to the chase and prevent so egregiously unsuitable a choice from reaching the White House in the first place.

(Fallows-Rothman dialogue edited for space and clarity.)

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Crazy Donald and Chinese Nukes: Pence Compromise vs. Greater Risk of H-Bombed DC

December 4, 2016

Thank you, Sarah Palin. Friday you reminded us what a whack job The Donald is, even if your language was more indirect.


Here he’d led you to believe he was a constitutional conservative. But now he’s bragged about a plan for Indiana to pay $7 million in incentives over a decade to keep a Carrier plant in Indiana and not move all jobs to Mexico.


Granted, Palin toned down her indignation with a little double-talk. But the Inner Sarah’s displeasure was clear and abundant, and I’m hardly surprised. Trump is no more a true Republican by Palin standards—or those of many others in the GOP—than his hair is a natural orange. And therein lies an opportunity to save America from Trump through an Electoral College compromise. Enough Democratic electors could agree to vote for Vice President-elect Mike Pence as President instead, in return for enough Republican counterparts agreeing to withdraw support from Trump to throw the election into the House of Representatives.


Via an initiative called The Hamilton Electors, some activists are already asking Republican electors to “select a Reasonable Republican who does not have Donald Trump’s questionable ethics, lack of policy knowledge and lack of relevant experience.” The Hamilton Electors point to “3 tests that the Founding Fathers used to judge the ‘fitness’ of a President,” and as they see it, say Trump would flunk. Bravo! As I see it, however, the “Reasonable” mention isn’t enough. By focusing on Mike Pence and even encouraging Democratic electors to vote for him December 19, the Hamilton Electors group could better deal with criticism that the College was ignoring The Will of the People. Remember, Pence was Trump’s running mate. Of course, I’m rooting for Hillary Clinton to win recounts in crucial states, but don’t count on it, and in fact, in her place, I’d actually lean on the electors to vote for Pence, given the horrors of a Trump presidency.


No, Pence is not my favorite politician. Far from Reasonable, with or without a capital R, most of his policies are loathsome on issues ranging from labor relations to gender equality. But Indiana’s governor has one big thing going for him—notably that he is not Donald Trump. What’s more, he can be reasonable at times within limits. Pence has even called for a federal shield law to protect professional journalists from testifying in court in many cases, a stark contrast to Trump, who, like Putin, loves the idea of using libel laws to squelch uppity editors and reporters.

While by ex-Governor Palin’s standards Pence may have paved the way for “crony capitalism” via the Carrier deal, most Republicans in the House of Representatives would be far more comfortable with him as President than with Trump. And that’s important, for this is one battle that the Hamilton Electors and the rest of the country and planet can’t afford to lose. The experts Trump ridicules are absolutely right. He is an existential threat—something of special interest to those of us who live within a few miles of Ground Zero in a nuclear war. Consider this headline in Politico: “Bull in a China shop: Trump risks diplomatic blowup in Asia. No U.S. president or president-elect is known to have spoken to a Taiwanese leader since 1979.” Is it The Will of The People to be incinerated by Chinese H bombs—far more likely under Trump than under Pence?


Countless reasons exist to thwart The Donald at any cost, but this one is paramount. A Pence compromise, please.


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Accountability: Why the Press Needs to Ask ALL 538 Electors about Donald Trump

November 29, 2016

A century from now, historians may well turn to the Trump Time Capsule series.

The Atlantic’s James Fallows has told “what we knew, when we knew it, about the man who was trying to become president.” The series holds Republican politicians and others accountable to future generations. Donald Trump’s detractors regard him as a potential tyrant with little regard for the First Amendment, climate change measures, diversity, women’s rights and countless other concerns—hence, the close scrutiny by The Atlantic and others.

But the job isn’t done. The Atlantic, the Washington Post, the New York Times, NPR and other major news organizations should to talk to every member of the Electoral College before the vote on December 19.

The names of the 538 electors are not secret. They’re even in Wikipedia, and through state Web sites and otherwise, reporters should be able to catch up with their physical and email addresses and phone numbers. Let’s try to get all the electors on record as to how they feel about Trump and gather the individual answers in one place.

Perhaps this could be a joint project of several or even many news organizations, so we see all the answers as soon as possible. A clonable online database, in the public domain to make preservation easier and help protect the results from possible future censorship, would contain all the details. Ideally the interviews can be in audio, and if at least some are in video, then so much the better. Should the electors not talk, their name and reasons for declining (if given) should be mentioned.

Interviewing electors of both parties, the reporters should not lobby for or against Trump. But if nothing else in the interest of history, they should ask these questions or at least similar ones:

  1. Are you planning to vote for Trump? (No Democratic elector will say yes, but read on---see question 10.)
  2. If so, why? Is it because you presently believe that the system requires you to? Please list all the pro-Trump reasons, legal and otherwise. If you’re voting for him not just because of election results but also because you sincerely think his presidency would be good for the United States, then mention the specifics. If dislike of Hillary Clinton is one reason for your vote, say so and elaborate.
  3. Will you still vote for Trump even if he does not pledge to relinquish control of his assets and either sell them or place them in the control of independent trustees empowered in every way to eliminate conflicts of interests?
  4. Is it a conflict when Trump holds overseas properties or has his name otherwise associated with them? What to do about such situations as those in Turkey ("a little conflict of interest," as he himself has described it), India, the Philippines, and Argentina, where he and local partners rely on the goodwill of the local governments? And if his companies receive favors, will this violate the language in the Constitution prohibiting emoluments from foreign powers? Might Trump’s dealing with state-owned companies---or companies whose owners have close ties to the ruling politicians---be the same as actual dealings with these foreign states? Even or especially with members of his family running his businesses?
  5. Are there reasons other than the Constitutional ban on emoluments why you might not want to vote for Trump, such as his plea for less press freedom, the end result of “opening up” the libel laws? Dictators such as Vladimir Putin and their allies have used criminal and civil libel laws to stymie reporters investigating corruption, the reason why this question is germane.
  6. Does the First Amendment provide enough press protection, not enough or too much?
  7. If you’re from a state that requires electors to go by the election results, would you be open to the possibility of campaign donors or others paying your fine and legal expenses? Even if you’re in South Carolina, where faithless electors face possible criminal penalties, would you be willing to undergo the legal risks?
  8. Would the fact that Trump lost the popular vote on November 8 be at all a factor in making your choice?
  9. Should we abolish the Electoral College? Why or why not?
  10. Under any circumstances would you be open to a compromise under which Democratic electors agreed to vote for Vice President-elect Mike Pence in return for Republicans promising not to vote for Trump? Most Democrats would hate most of Pence’s policies, but significantly, he has supported a federal shield law to protect professional journalist from having to reveal anonymous sources in most cases. Although, as governor of Indiana, he called for a state news agency, he dropped this second proposal. Would the Pence approach possibly be tidier than throwing this into the House of Representatives without some kind of compromise beforehand? If not, why not? If so, why? Needless to say, Democrats would still be free to oppose Pence's policies on issues ranging from abortion to taxes.

The last question, of course, is one reason why the interviews should not be confined to Republican electors alone.

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